Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East

Formalize Rights for Domestic Workers

Domestic workers throughout the Middle East are insufficiently protected by legislation and have limited means to redress abuse. A largely female enterprise, their work is often undervalued as “unproductive,” rendering them particularly vulnerable to wide range of abuses including: nonpayment or underpayment, restricted mobility, dangerous working conditions, overwork, as well as verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

A Migrant Rights Campaign

Formalize Rights for Domestic Workers

Domestic workers throughout the Middle East are insufficiently protected by legislation and have limited means to redress abuse. A largely female enterprise, their work is often undervalued as “unproductive,” rendering them particularly vulnerable to wide range of abuses including: nonpayment or underpayment, restricted mobility, dangerous working conditions, overwork, as well as verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

  • 10,000+ DOMESTIC WORKERS LODGED COMPLAINTS AGAINST EMPLOYERS IN KUWAIT (2010)
  • 56,000+ INDONESIAN DOMESTIC WORKERS ESCAPED ABUSIVE EMPLOYERS IN SAUDI (2009)
  • 15% OF SRI LANKAN WOMEN WHO LEAVE EACH YEAR FOR THE GULF RETURN PREMATURELY
  • 1,841,936 APPROXIMATELY 1,841,936 TOTAL DOCUMENTED DOMESTIC WORKERS IN THE GULF

Next: Background

Legislate Protections for Domestic workers

Background

Domestic Workers across the globe are vulnerable to abuse, in part because their labor is conducted in the private sphere of the home, a realm officials are reluctant to regulate.  Compounded by the Gulf’s sponsorship system, the confined nature of their work renders them over-dependent on employers and creates situations ripe for exploitation; many work over 10-hour days with few breaks, do not receive days off,  are unable to leave the house without permission, and are forced to undertake a wide cross-section of duties – usually playing the role of nanny, cook, and cleaner – for very little compensation. Many also suffer physical and verbal abuse from their employers. The weight of these pressures is exacerbated by the difficulty in accessing support from either origin or destination governments as mobility and access to communication (including cell phones and laptops) is tightly restricted.

According to a recent ILO report, the systematic conditions domestic workers face throughout the Gulf are indicative of forced labor. Though individuals are entirely responsible for their conduct towards employees, structural forces instruct and perpetuate violation of domestic workers rights. In particular, domestic workers’ exploitation is tacitly sanctioned by their exclusion from national labor laws. Instead, decrees, amendments, and unified contracts governing domestic work provide  only piecemeal, insufficient insufficient protections against exploitation

Gulf states must align prospective unified contracts with international standards, including Convention 189 on Decent Work For Domestic workers, incorporate domestic workers under national labor code to guarantee the full spectrum of their rights and to codify the value of this work.

ACCORDING TO A RECENT ILO REPORT, THE SYSTEMATIC CONDITIONS DOMESTIC WORKERS FACE THROUGHOUT THE MIDDLE EAST ARE INDICATIVE OF FORCED LABOR.

Next: Recent Cases

Formalize Protections for Domestic workers

Recent Cases

1.High Rates of Suicide

Suicide amongst domestic workers occurs at an alarming rate throughout the Gulf.  Workers who are physically or verbally abused and isolated from the community and family members are vulnerable to depression. Compounded by obstructions to receiving support and the difficulty in leaving abusive employment conditions – runaway workers who are caught are detained for indeterminate periods, fined, and deported, – some workers feel suicide is their only escape.  In April 2013 alone,  a number of domestic workers suicides were reported:  In Kuwait, a Sri Lankan domestic worker attempted suicide in her sponsor’s home. In Hafr Al-Batin, KSA, an African domestic worker attempted to hang herself. Another Asian housemaid attempted suicide by stabbing herself.

Official Kuwaiti government statistics recently verified the disproportionately higher rate of domestic worker suicides over any other group in Kuwait. An article in the Kuwaiti Times cites a Kuwaiti psychiatrist who directly designates physical, sexual, and mental abuse as the primary motive behind these excessive rates.  Yet, in many of these cases, “homesickness” or “problems at home” are cited as the workers’ impetus to commit suicide. The veracity of these claims is often unconvincing. In many incidents, a more complete explanation would also involve the migrant’s working conditions. Domestic worker suicides are not exclusive to the Gulf, but do occur frequently in nations that lack significant protections for workers and tacitly legitimize abuse. Employers are occasionally questioned regarding the circumstances of a workers’ suicide, but they rarely face significant penalties even if employer misconduct is determined. In contrast, migrant workers who attempt suicide may face criminal charges, fines, detainment, and deportation.

2.“The Maid Trade:” Trafficking of Migrant Domestic Workers

The common practice of charging exorbitant, profitable fees for transferral is often referred to as the “Maid Trade” and amounts to human trafficking. Employers often perceive maids as “investments,” in part because of high recruitment costs exacerbated by the sponsorship system. The commodification of domestic workers necessarily invites abuse as the employment relationship becomes one of ownership rather than an exchange of services. Traditional undervaluation of domestic labor contributes to these denigrating practices. The buying and selling of domestic workers is so normalized, “transactions” frequent online communities – one recent example is viewable here.

3.Abuse And No Way Out

In March 2013, at least four cases of employers torturing domestic workers were documented; In Kuwait, a Nepali maid filed a complaint against her sponsor and his wife for torturing her. In Sharjah, an employer’s protracted abuse of an documented Ethiopian domestic worker was revealed after she poured hot oil on the maid’s head, prompting hospitalization. In Saudi Arabia, a mother and son were arrested for abandoning a pregnant maid’s body in a hospital parking lot. In Qatar, a Nepali maid trafficked into the country sought refuge in the Nepali embassy after escaping from an abusive employer. The maid alleges that her employer tortured her and refused to release her without a QR2000 payment.

Migrant workers face systematic obstructions to pursuing cases against their employers and risk serious countercharges (including detainment and deportation) -  even if they manage to obtain financial and logistical support from their origin government. In some states, migrants are unable to legally work for another sponsor and consequently are unable to support themselves or hire lawyers through the duration of their trials. The UAE allows migrant workers to obtain temporary permits to work in such situations, but the cost of trials remain prohibitive.

When trials are pursued, the likelihood of securing a just ruling against abusive employers is slim; even if employers are found guilty, they often obtain reduced sentences or no penalties at all.

Next: Suggested Action

Suggested Action

    Expanding protections for domestic workers would benefit benefit migrants, employers, as well as sending and origin countries. Formalizing the relationship between employers and domestic workers would codify the value of domestic work and subvert prevailing social conceptions that justify their exploitation. Concrete improvement to their well-being would discourage states from banning domestic worker deployment, and would ensure the supply of workers necessary to free up local women for work; these positive repercussions would accelerate GCC state’s fervent efforts to improve female employment and to nationalize of the workforce. Additionally, less domestic workers would abscond (runaway) from employers and reduce the proportion of the state’s undocumented workers.

    • Ratify and implement Convention 189 on decent work for domestic workers

    • Immediately align prospective unified contracts with international standards
    • Extend the national labor code to include domestic workers in order to guarantee them full spectrum of their labor rights
    • Coordinate with sending embassies and consulates to enable domestic workers to seek redress for abuse

    • Ensure authorities are trained to identify and manage cases of domestic worker abuse
    • Ensure authorities are trained to identify and manage cases of domestic worker abuse
    • Permit domestic workers to work part-time and to reside outside of employer’s homes

    Origin countries can drastically improve migrant domestic workers' experience through internal policies as well as bilateral and multilateral coordination.

    • Establish or improve existing training programs that go beyond teaching domestic workers skills and cultural assimilation - ensure domestic workers are aware of their rights and their means of redress
    • Avoid deployment bans, as they unfairly restrict mobility and encourage illegal migration and have historically failed to procure significant improvements for domestic workers
    • Ensure embassies are well-staffed and well-funded to provide workers with the resources they need
    • Establish 24/7 hotlines for domestic workers to report issues

    Especially given the scope of control ceded to sponsors, citizens significantly impact migrant domestic workers experience on a day to day basis. Regardless of weak local laws, citizens have an obligation respect the dignity and human rights of domestic workers.

    • Immediately report suspected cases of abuse to authorities
    • Permit sponsorships transferrals where possible if both parties are unhappy, rather than “returning” domestic workers to recruitment offices. Workers are more likely to face trafficking or other abusive conditions because recruitment offices are often unregulated.
    • Familiarize yourself with your legal obligations, even if they are unenforced.
    • Acknowledge that domestic workers must be treated as formal employees and cannot be subjected to informal practices, including “in kind” payments

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